For the first time, Canada's federal pipeline regulator, the National Energy Board, plans to consider the impact of upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions in its evaluation of a major energy project.

These impacts are among a draft list of items that a brand new panel reviewing TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East pipeline proposal will consider during public hearings for the project later this year. The regulator is seeking public feedback on this list before finalizing the topics for consideration early this summer.

This means that the regulator will not only look at heat-trapping pollution produced from construction and operations of the proposed pipeline, but also the emissions associated with up to 1.1 million barrels of oil per day that would be shipped if the project is approved.

Other items of note on the list beyond greenhouse gas emissions, said NEB communications officer Marc Drolet, include considerations for marine shipping, and the environmental and social impacts of power lines that will connect to the project's pump stations.

"That’s part of the proposal that they’re putting forward and they want to hear from Canadians about their opinion on this proposal," he told National Observer shortly after the announcement.

A pipeline review plagued by scandal

The Energy East pipeline is the largest proposal of its kind in North American history, and if approved, would cross some 3,000 streams, rivers, and waterways on its way from the Prairies to the East Coast. The 4,500-kilometre project aims to ship oil from producers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and North Dakota to refineries and marine ports in Quebec and New Brunswick. ​

The Energy East review process was started virtually from scratch in January 2017, amidst allegations that the pipeline's previous review panel had been too cozy with the industry proponent it was appointed to review objectively.

National Observer's award-winning investigation found last year that the NEB's chairman and CEO, Peter Watson, along with two of its panelists, had met in secret with a paid consultant for TransCanada Corp. to provide advice on how to effectively engage Quebec residents on the pipeline project they were reviewing. The consultant was former Quebec premier Jean Charest.

National Energy Board, Energy East, Roland George, Lyne Mercier, Jacques Gauthier
The original members of the National Energy Board's Energy East panel, Roland George, Lyne Mercier and Jacques Gauthier, recused themselves in September 2016. Photo from National Energy Board website.

Following public outrage over the appearance of bias, hearings for Energy East were stopped in their tracks. Less than a month later, in September 2016, Watson and the entire Energy East panel recused themselves from proceedings related to the pipeline project.

The new panel, appointed in January this year, has since voided any and all decisions made by that panel. In a letter released Wednesday along with the draft lists, the NEB said it will not only consider whether or not the project is in the public interest, but the context in which it is being proposed as well:

"In this hearing, the Board intends to consider the context in which the projects are being proposed, including Canadian and provincial energy and greenhouse gas strategies, policies, laws, or regulations."

Regaining public trust

The NEB proposal was welcomed by environmental groups in Quebec, a province known for its fierce opposition to Energy East.

According to Steven Guilbeault, co-founder and senior director of the Montreal-based environmental group, Équiterre, the latter is an impressive commitment. It represents a stark contrast from the previous panel, he said, which "barely took into account" the issue of climate change.

"I think that's a pretty big deal," he told National Observer. "I’ve never seen the National Energy Board go this far on the issue of climate change."

Last year, Équiterre took TransCanada to court for failing to comply with Quebec’s environmental regulations throughout its proposal and NEB application for Energy East. But the legal complaint was suspended when the Quebec government filed for an injunction for the very same reasons. Guilbeault also said that his organization may consider rebooting the complaint.

"I think there are many more steps to get to a point where the public can trust the NEB," he said. "... At least the NEB seems to be taking issues that are of great concerns to Canadians more seriously than they did before. "

André Bélisle of the Quebec environmental group, l'Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique, agreed. But he added that the NEB needs an overhaul before the panel can pick up the Energy East review process once more.

"We know about the wheeling and dealing they (the previous panel) did behind closed doors," he said in an interview. "We still demand a public inquiry about it in order to make sure that reform will be useful."

TransCanada fully participating

Work to review the way the NEB does business has already begun. That 'modernization' effort is part of the Trudeau government's commitment in 2016 to do a comprehensive overhaul of Canada's environmental laws and federal oversight of industrial development.

The Energy East pipeline will be considered in tandem with another TransCanada proposal, the Eastern Mainline pipeline. That particular project aims to build roughly 280 kilometres of new gas pipeline and related components from an area near Markham, Ont. to just outside of Brouseville, Ont.

TransCanada, the Calgary-based company behind Energy East and Eastern Mainline, said on Wednesday it hadn't yet reviewed the new topics of consideration for hearings on its pipeline projects, but would conduct a thorough read-through shortly. The company added that it looks forward to receiving more information from the NEB on the next steps in the pipeline review process.

"We are fully participating in the review process, which gives Canadians the opportunity to ask questions and express opinions about the two projects," spokesman Tim Duboyce said in an emailed statement to National Observer. "TransCanada and its shippers continue to support this project which represents a new way to deliver Canadian crude oil to eastern refineries and reach international markets."

Members of the public have until May 31 to comment on the preliminary list of subjects for both the Energy East and Eastern Mainline projects.